Star Trek Returns to Television (Sort Of) With Star Trek: Discovery!
The first time I can remember being aware of and excited about Star Trek was when Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home came out in 1986. I must have been exposed to Star Trek before that, because I was excited to see that movie in theatres. But I don’t think I’d seen the prior movies, because when I saw it, I was confused as to what was going on (what had happened to Spock? What had happened to the Enterprise?), and I remember going home afterwards and watching the first three Trek movies on VHS with my father to get caught up. So I’m not sure when I first actually saw Trek or what made me want to go see Star Trek IV — maybe watching the reruns of the Animated Series on TV? — but seeing those first four Trek movies started my love for Trek, and when Star Trek: The Next Generation launched the next year, I was hooked from the very first episode. I have been, ever since, an enormous Star Trek fan. It’s been a long time since Star Trek was last on TV. Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled after 4 seasons, and aired its last episode in May, 2005. I love the big Trek movies, but I firmly believe that Star Trek belongs on TV. And so I was extremely excited when, at long last, a new Trek series was announced: Star Trek: Discovery. I was thrilled when names like Bryan Fuller and Nicholas Meyer were announced as being involved with the new Trek show, though my heart sank as the series was delayed again and again and Mr. Fuller left (or was pushed out?). But I resolved to reserve judgment until I could actually see the show. Well, I have seen the first two episodes (episode 1, “The Vulcan Hello,” aired on CBS, and episode 2, ” Battle at the Binary Stars,” is available for streaming at CBS All Access), and I am here to share my thoughts.
Let’s cut right to the chase: while I certainly have questions and issues with some of the creative choices made in these first two episodes, overall I am very happy and excited to see more of the series. The visual effects are spectacular, and the show so far is rooted in interesting character drama and interstellar politics in equal measure, which is exactly how I like my Star Trek to be. Star Trek: Discovery FEELS like Star Trek (FAR more than the three J.J. Abrams-rebooted recent Trek movies), and that makes me very happy.
Set ten years before the events of the Original Series (Kirk/Spock/McCoy and their adventures on the original U.S.S. Enterprise), Star Trek: Discovery focuses on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) who, when we meet her, is the first officer on board the U.S.S. Shenzhou. At the edge of known space, the Shenzhou is tasked to investigate damage to a Starfleet communications array. There they encounter a mysterious object in space that turns out to be an object (or ship?) sacred to the Klingons, who have apparently not been seen for a hundred years. Burnham’s actions spark the eruption of hostilities between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire.
The two main characters of these first two episodes are Burnham and her captain, Philippa Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh. I love the work of these two women; both Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh are terrific, bringing a richness of emotion and dramatic weight to all of their scenes. These two are completely convincing as Starfleet leaders commanding a starship, and I loved the development of their mentor-mentee relationship. It’s terrific to see two strong women anchoring these episodes; what a great way to kick off this new series. (I am incredibly saddened that it doesn’t look like Ms. Yeoh will be involved with the rest of the series. I would have LOVED a show with these two as the leads. But, on the other hand, I am excited that Ms. Martin-Green will be Discovery’s main character, and I am eager to follow her through future episodes.) Star Trek works when you care about the characters, and the strong focus on Burnham and Georgiou in these first two episodes was very well done.
Starting with the 24th-century-set Star Trek: The Next Generation, creator Gene Roddenberry developed a notion that humanity had evolved beyond any sort of interpersonal conflicts. This meant that most of the drama on Next Gen and the subsequent Trek shows had to be external, rather than between the Starfleet characters, and this sometimes robbed the shows of dramatic weight. But it’s important to remember that in Mr. Roddenberry’s first Star Trek show, the Kirk/Spock/McCoy Original Series, there was LOTS of interpersonal conflict and drama. In setting Discovery 10 years before the Original Series, the writers of Discovery have, thankfully, felt free to allow for plenty of conflict and drama amongst our otherwise heroic characters. In the very first hour of the show, we see Georgiou and Burnham’s tight comradery devolve into one character pointing a phaser at the other on the bridge of the Shenzhou; and the writing is strong enough that we can see both characters’ points of view. That is the way Star Trek should be.
I wrote above that Discovery FEELS like Star Trek, and while I have lots of issues with the LOOK of the show (the costumes, the sets — more on this later), this is what I mean when I say that Discovery feels right. For the first time in a very long time (including the three recent J.J. Abrams rebooted movies, and even much of the previous two Trek shows, Enterprise and Voyager), the Starfleet officers on this show, so far, behave like Starfleet officers. The first episode emphasizes this repeatedly. “We come in peace… isn’t that the whole idea of Starfleet?” Burnham states in her very first line of dialogue. YES. The opening scene with Georgiou and Burnham has them working to help an endangered alien race without violating the Prime Directive. YES. “Starfleet does not shoot first,” Captain Georgiou declares in a tense standoff with Burnham. YES.
(It’s not at all the focus of that first episode, but I also applaud the show for it’s correct understanding of the Prime Directive — referred to only as “General Order One,” in a nice nod to all the Trek fans paying close attention — in that introductory sequence with Georgiou and Burnham. Many Trek shows have interpreted the Prime Directive to mean that Starfleet ships cannot take ANY action in relation to an alien civilization that has not yet developed Warp Drive, even if that means allowing them to die by not getting involved. That has always struck me as incredibly twisted and wrong. But Georgiou and Burnham act as Kirk always did; they DO get involved to help save this alien civilization! BUT they take pains to keep their actions secret from those aliens, so as not to affect their society. (Something Kirk often failed to do.) THIS is exactly how I have always felt the Prime Directive should be observed. End digression.)
Of the new characters introduced on the show so far, the one who makes the most memorable impression is Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru. Doug Jones has consistently impressed me in a variety of heavily prosthetic roles in the films of Guillermo del Toro (he played Abe Sapien in the two Hellboy films), and it is a hoot to see him bring this new alien being to life on a Star Trek show. I didn’t love Saru’s “I sense death” stuff in the show’s trailers, but I liked him a lot more getting to see his whole character over the course of these first two episodes. It’s fascinating (ha!) to see a somewhat cowardly character as a main character in a Star Trek show! This is an interesting twist to Saru’s somewhat Spock-like persona (delivering much of the show’s scientific exposition).
The visual effects on the show are gorgeous. These are big-budget movie-quality visual effects. The binary star setting of much of these first two episodes is stunningly beautiful. The outer-space combat, when it comes in the second episode, is visceral and thrilling. It is very exciting for me as a Trek fan to see this new series executed on a large-enough budget to convincing create this sort of spectacle. (Even the very best of the previous Trek TV series always felt as if they needed a lot more money for the show’s visuals to properly convey the stories being told.)
I do have a lot of problems with the other visual choices made by the show. This show is supposed to take place a mere ten years before the events of the Original Series, but the sets and costumes look NOTHING like the brightly colored look of the Original Series! It feels like a huge continuity problem to me. Yes, if you watch the fifty-year-old Original Series today, some of it looks cheesy. But several fan-made productions have shown that, when brought to life with today’s capabilities, the look and style of the Original Series can still be very cool! The fan-made show Star Trek Continues contains beautiful recreations of the Original Series sets and costumes, and they look great. (Here’s a link to watch their last episode.) Even better, the fan-made Prelude to Axanar project shows how those classic Trek designs can be tweaked slightly to have a much more modern, cool look. (Watch the amazing short film Prelude to Axanar here.) And those two fan projects were done with a tiny fraction of the budget given to Discovery. Why set this show in the Original Series era if you have no interest in using any of the look of that show?? This mystifies me. Other than seeing the Starfleet characters use a handheld, flip-open communicator similar to the ones used in the Kirk/Spock era, Discovery entirely rejects the visual look of the Original Series. More on this in a moment.
I will say that, when judging this new show entirely on its own, without any comparisons to the Original Series and ignoring all continuity issues, I do like the look of the Shenzhou, both the ship’s exterior and also its bridge. I adore the huge, wide viewscreen that seems to take up the entire front wall of the bridge. I love the sleek look of the bridge, and the cool, holographic displays on the control panels. However, the uniforms? UGH, TERRIBLE. These look like a real-life version of the costumes on Futurama! These are generic, boring (even a little bit silly) sci-fi costumes. This was a big swing and a miss.
But let’s get back to this show’s setting as a prequel. I generally hate prequels, and having this show be set BEFORE the events of the Original Series means that it is full of problematic anachronisms. We see Captain Georgiou communicate with an Admiral who appears as a full-size, 3D hologram (and Burnham does the same when she speaks with Sarek), and yet no Federation ship that we’ve seen before had this sort of 3D holographic technology until the Defiant in the later seasons of Deep Space Nine, set 100 years later. We see the Klingon ship in the first episode use a cloaking device, but no Klingons ever had a cloaking device in the Original Series — the first Klingon vessel with a cloaking device wasn’t seen until Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. How is it that the Shenzhou bridge is filled with aliens we’ve never seen before in any of the Trek series set in the following decades/centuries? Why do these Klingons look so different from any Klingons we’ve seen before? Why don’t any of their ships look anything like the smooth, sleek Klingon ships we saw in the Original Series? Why have we never heard before of the Klingons’ “24 great houses”? I could go on and on.
I wish this series was set 100 years AFTER Next Generation, rather than being set BEFORE the Original Series. If Discovery was set 100 years after Next Gen, then all of the above-mentioned continuity issues would vanish!! If Discovery was set further ahead in the Trek timeline, then it would make sense, rather than being a problem, that the show’s tech looks more advanced than what we’ve seen before, not less. It would make sense, rather than being a problem, that we are meeting aliens we’ve never seen before (or seeing new versions of familiar aliens like the Klingons). Think about this for a minute: there are hardly any changes that would have had to be made to these first two episodes for them to have been set in Trek’s future rather than its past. As it is, I suspect the show’s problems with Trek continuity will only get worse, not better, as the series progresses and we get more opportunities for these new stories to contradict what has gone before. What a bummer.
(I hope that, as the show continues, we’ll discover that there is some reason why the show is a prequel, set at this specific point in the Trek timeline. Is the show maybe building to something, that will show us the purpose of the show’s setting? That would allow me to forgive some of these other continuity problems. We’ll see…)
* I love that Captain Georgiou refers to Burnham as “Number One.” (In the original Star Trek pilot, Captain Pike referred to his female first officer as “Number One”, and of course Captain Picard often called Riker “Number One.”)
* The show’s biggest continuity problem is Burnham’s connection to Sarek. Of course it’s awesome to see Sarek again, but the idea that the half-human Spock, who often struggled to balance his logic with his emotion, had a half-sister with exactly the same issues, and yet she has never been mentioned before, stretches my credulity. I wish that Burnham was not connected to Sarek in this way.
* James Frain is the third actor to play Sarek. Mark Lenard, of course, originated the role in the Original Series (and reprised the character in several of the movies and in several amazing guest appearances on The Next Generation), and Ben Cross played Sarek in the J.J. movies. Mr. Frain is fine, though he did seem a little too emotional in a few instances.
* I am confused about the Sarek-Burnham mind-meld stuff. Why did Sarek meld with young Burnham? (I assumed that she became Sarek’s ward after being rescued from a Klingon attack as a child, and so the scene of her as a kid in a Vulcan learning pod — nice nod to the ’09 Star Trek film there, by the way — took place after the death of her family. But then in the second episode we see young Burnham in the burning wreckage of the learning pod, where she is found by Sarek who melds with her — so was she already Sarek’s ward before the Klingon attack?) How does this mind-meld allow for Sarek and Burnham to communicate across light-years? Considering that it is a core part of the Spock-Sarek story that Sarek never chose to meld with his half-human son, why would Sarek meld so freely with this human girl?
* Boy do these new Klingons look weird. I am not a big fan of this new look. (When they showed us holograms of other Klingons from other great houses, why didn’t they show us some Klingons who look human like they did in the Original Series — remember, the “augment virus” is now a canonical explanation of why this change in Klingon appearance, as per the final season of Enterprise — and also some Klingons who look like they all did in Next Gen?)
* I do love all the references to Kahless. That line at the beginning of the first episode about “the unforgettable” having been forgotten was great. (Trek fans of course know that Kahless is known as Kahless the Unforgettable.)
* I was intrigued that in the first episode a character referred to “phase cannons” (as per thge prequel Enterprise) rather than the more familiar “phasers” (as per the Original Series and all subsequent Trek.)
* Am I right that the Shenzhou’s bridge is on the BOTTOM of its saucer, rather than the top? That’s an interesting twist on Trek tradition.
* I’d love to know more about the robot-looking guy with the computer-screen head on the Shenzhou’s bridge crew! This feels like yet another continuity problem for this Trek prequel show, as Data was the first sentient robot on a Starfleet crew. But this character was interesting looking, I’ll give the show that! How about that communications officer who looks like Lobot from The Empire Strikes Back? Is that tech that wraps around his head permanently attached?
* I loved the look of the scenes of Burnham trapped in the brig, with the damaged starship all around her. That’s a cool idea, gorgeously executed.
* I am somewhat confused by Burnham’s actions. That this Vulcan-like human would be driven to such extremes so as to mutiny against her beloved captain seems a stretch. Does the show want us to believe that Burnham was correct, that she was acting logically rather than being twisted by her emotional reaction to the Klingons? I hope future episodes clarify things. From what we’ve seen so far, had Burnham convinced Georgiou to fire first on the Klingons, I’m not sure that would have changed anything. Though Burnham’s later plan, of capturing the Klingon leader to dishonor him, rather than killing and martyring him, seems sound. (I am unclear what exactly went wrong. Why didn’t Saru beam over the dead Klingon after Burnham shot him? Saru says he can’t lock on without a life-form reading, but we have seen transporters able to beam inanimate objects before plenty of times in Trek — even, I am pretty sure, in the prequel series Enterprise which was set decades before this series. Heck, just minutes earlier, we saw the transporter beam a photo torpedo charge!)
* Although it looked dramatic, I didn’t like the shadowy look of the court martial at the end of the second episode. It seems very un-Starfleet for the faces of the tribunal to be hidden. And sentencing that character to life in prison seems like quite a ridiculous extreme. (Though obviously that character will be out of prison by the next episode…)
* I love that, so far, this show has embraced the serialization so prevalent in modern TV story-telling. Contrary to a lot of articles about the show, Trek has done serialization before. Deep Space Nine slowly grew into a heavily serialized show, with the ten-hour finale being a high-point. And the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise were heavily serialized as well. Still, it’s exciting to see a Trek show with a more “modern” feel to its story-telling. So far, it’s working great.
* How do I feel about the show’s only being available via the CBS All Access pay service? Well, of course I am not thrilled about having to pay a monthly fee to watch this series, and I suspect this will dramatically limit the number of people who will be watching future episodes, and as a Trek fan who wants the show to be successful and popular, this makes me sad. On the other hand, I have been saying for years that I thought that the next Trek show should be made for one of the online services like Netflix, which has become a great home for much-loved niche series that didn’t prosper on traditional Network television. As a Trek fan, I am open to paying to support the creation of great new Star Trek adventures. So I am not automatically opposed to this. If the show is great, I won’t mind spending the money.
* Though I mentioned the fan-made Axanar project above, I have thus far restrained myself from bringing up how CBS/Paramount sued and crushed what would have been that fan project to tell a story set during this same time period of Trek history. I hate that CBS/Paramount were so concerned that this fan project would in some way detract from the in-development Discovery. There surely would have been room in Trek fans’ hearts for both projects. Based on the “proof of concept” short film Prelude to Axanar, the Axanar film would have been amazing, and I hate that now it will never exist because of this lawsuit, which also had the ripple effect of effectively ending ALL other Star Trek fan films as well. (I wrote a detailed piece about this here.) It’s hard not to hold all that against Discovery, but I am trying not to. I want to judge Discovery on its own… and I want to like it!
So far, so good! As you can see, as an attentive Trek fan I do have issues with this new show. It’s prequel-era setting has so far proven to be its biggest weakness, as the show’s efforts to blaze new terrain has often put it in conflict with pre-established continuity. But in the most important ways, so far Discovery has been great. This is probably among the strongest first two hours of any previous Star Trek show. I love seeing Trek brought to life with the big budget that it deserves. And I love that, while the show delivers the action-adventure spectacle that I enjoy, so far Discovery has been firmly rooted in its characters, and in the morality-based storytelling that lies at the heart of all the best of Trek.
I am on board for the ride. Let’s see what’s out there…!